Digital technology is changing every facet of our lives, from ordering our groceries online, to communicating with customers, and even how we interact with family and friends. Our expectations of technology have never been higher: we assume there will always be a good WiFi signal and that information we receive from our apps will be correct.
Airports are no different from every other building in this regard; if anything, we expect even more from them as they provide critical steps in our journeys from passport control, to security checks, and onto boarding gates.
A number of digital technologies in particular are personalising customers’ experience in the aviation industry. These include identity management software such as blockchain, various Internet-of-Things initiatives, and the use of augmented reality (AR) and positioning eBeacons to guide passengers around the airport building. In addition, the use of online check-in and smartphone apps in place of printed boarding cards have already become commonplace. Indeed, consider airline passengers with biometric ID cards, that are automatically verified by unmanned stop-go kiosks. The only human-to-human interaction they might have in the airport building is with the sales assistant in the duty-free shop.
Some smartphone apps are already linking to departure boards and providing users with real-time information on boarding gates and possible delays. The next-generation of apps will likely link to arrival boards, which could allow taxis and other onward operators to stay updated on passengers’ arrival times. While departure and arrival boards are usually placed strategically to ensure they are easy to locate, it would add another layer of surety for people if information could be relayed to them rather than having to go find it.
Challenges and opportunities
To ensure technology expectations of airline customers are met, a number of challenges are evident. Here we outline some issues with respect to implementing and maintaining current technologies, as well as further opportunities that may come on-stream if airports and technology companies continue to partner on new projects.
Convergence of smartphone apps
Given that every functioning business has a smartphone app of some description, an airline passenger could potentially download five separate apps for one trip. These include apps from the car hire company, the airline, departure airport, arrival airport, and destination hotel. Airports are ideally placed to take the lead on ensuring a seamless journey for their customers. Combining artificial intelligence and chatbots is one option that has the potential to create a single gateway for users. Another slice of this work is happening at Munich Airport, which is working with Siemens, to establish a project called ‘Mobility as a Service’. This online system gives people possible routes and means to get around the airport, in addition to information about queues at security and luggage carousels, delayed trains, taxis etc.
The number of people using digital technology is rising exponentially. However, this means a sizable amount of people are not online and their transfer through the airport must also be managed. They will rely on human-operated check-in desks and wall-mounted information boards to guide them around the building. While this essentially means running an online (virtual) system in parallel to a non-online (physical) system, the challenge here is for airports to optimise how best to do this and identify synergies between the two. For example, the physical system could provide a back-up channel to move passengers around the airport in the case of a cybersecurity attack.
Technical risks for wireless networks
This brings us to the technical risks and requirements airports must address. Cybersecurity is a major issue, but others include the reliability of WiFi coverage, increasing energy efficiency of the wireless network, and managing the rise and fall in demand for network bandwidth. Much funding is being invested in the future of mobile and broadband networks, including the 5G initiative from the European Commission. Among other tasks, research projects are looking at scenarios where large numbers of users connect and disconnect to a network via their smartphone/tablet. A typical use-case may involve 500 users casually browsing the Web in a given location, but suppose a breaking news story emerges? In a matter of minutes, upwards of 1,000 people may try to get online and follow the event. Further, accessing video content from news websites requires additional network bandwidth. Airports provide the perfect setting for this type of trial-research to be carried out. They can provide large numbers of users and have networks infrastructure in situ.
Working with technology companies via such a relationship gives airports early access to future technologies. This will allow them to further develop the relationship with their customers, and ensure airports are at the forefront of our current digital transformation.